Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Robocode: Productive Entertainment

Human beings are great with tools, it's a proven fact. Otherwise we wouldn't have built great empires and technologies during our short time here on Earth. With the advancements of technologies, very many people weren't delegated to long arduous hours of physical labor. Thus came about how we proved ourselves to be good at using tools not only to achieve tasks, but to use them in ways completely unintended for our personal entertainment. Take, for example, sword swallowing. Swords/knives are great for everything from chopping down brush, carving up pigs and stabbing your enemies, but just how much downtime do you need to be that bored to think, "hmm, I bet could swallow that razor-sharp sword no problem"? Bets, dares and challenges gave way to all that's popular, now. We use things like racquets and bats to hit things not to build something, but to see how hard we can hit it. We use gloves not handle things with care but to catch things to beat the other team.

Fast forward to the modern-era and we have not only physical tools but digital tools. Our entire economy is now (for better or for worse) fortified with the backbone of the Internet. The world is ever-shrinking and computers are assisting in computations in everything from business to protein folding. In those terms, we also have games that incorporate productivity skills into entertainment. In terms of contests, battles between algorithms are one of the most popular. Algorithms can mean that a company pulls in more money in the real world or finds a solution the first, but in terms of entertainment it would make for more explosions that result in points. Here is where we introduce Robocode, a game programmed in Java in which we program simulated robots to do our bidding, namely kill the other robots in the field.

Robocode: Robots in Plain View

Robocode was first produced by IBM, but support for the game was later dropped. The code, however, was made open-source and is maintained by hobbyists that I would guess, like the sword-swallowers, have a lot of downtime on their hands. When that downtime and effort results in a game as entertaining as Robocode, however, I don't see a problem with that. Robocode is an extremely easy way of building simulated battle robots that you can then put into a ring together for a battle to the death. All you need to do is download the site freely available from sourceforge run the jar install file and use the provided programs to compile and run your robots. The Robot class provided gives you all the functionality you need to make a competitive robots, namely their three basic functions: moving around the battlefield, scanning for other robots and firing their guns.

Professor Philip Johnson proposes that in order for one to become proficient at the sport of Robocode, as one often does in any other sport, one should submit oneself to learn and practice the basic functions of Robocode in order to increase your proficiency at both programming and the understanding of the game. His form of programming katas incorporated learning how to move to certain parts of the field and how to target/follow certain enemies. I found that learning to do these gave me ideas that I wouldn't have had if I started to kill robots on my own.

For instance, the idea of keeping distance from a robot in one Kata proved difficult since I kept running into walls as I backed up, essentially causing my robot to be trapped by the enemy robot ready to be blown up. My idea for keeping distance, however, by reversing perpendicularly off the wall looked like an effective way to keep distance, even if for a brief time you're going towards the enemy robot, you'll probably be better off in the long run and your gun is still faced at him.

Another challenge I had was figuring out, by myself, how to calculate angles for my robot to travel, not just in x then y, but in diagonals. What I believed would make me a better programmer, and one of the basic functions of robot katas, is to challenge myself and solve the problem myself, without open-source samples. This shows in my code since I have no doubt it's anything but optimal. However, I successfully learned to travel directly to the center using Javas atan function with the difference in coordinates between the robot and the point I wanted to go to. This having come after much trial-and-error, I believe I have a better understanding of the coordinate system than if I simply copied another person's code.

The downside to figuring things out for yourself, however, is the time that it takes for you to figure out the problem. It took me awhile for me to learn how to travel with a wall, use the radar system and using the several events to my advantage, so much so that I didn't have time to formulate a working plan to track a moving target (I believe I have fully finished the rest). The good thing about programming katas, however, is that if you repeatedly practice you will eventually have enough experience to solve problems in a quick and effecient way. And in that I intend to learn from this assignment and tackle things with minimal assistance, since it would make me a better programmer to understand things conceptually instead of just on the surface.

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